Where Do the Carolina Hurricanes Go From Here?
The Carolina Hurricanes surprised the NHL world last week by removing Ron Francis as general manager and making him president of hockey operations. The question now is, what direction will they take under his eventual replacement?
Francis’ “promotion” follows a similar path by the Florida Panthers two years ago. They kicked long-time general manager Dale Tallon upstairs in the president of hockey ops role and placed Tom Rowe into the GM chair.
That move lasted less than a year, during which the Panthers also dumped Gerard Gallant as head coach early in the 2016-17 campaign. They went on to miss the playoffs after winning the Atlantic Division crown in 2015-16 with a franchise-record 103-point performance. At season’s end, Tallon returned as general manager while Rowe was reduced to an advisory role.
Tom Dundon, who took over as majority owner in January, will try to avoid repeating that scenario. He apparently wasn’t pleased with Francis’ conservative style of team building. With the Hurricanes poised to miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year, Dundon felt the time was right for a management shakeup.
During Francis’ nearly four-year tenure as Hurricanes GM, he cleared up some much-needed salary-cap room and restocked their prospect pool. He also added scoring winger Teuvo Teravainen via trade and drafted winger Sebastian Aho and defenseman Noah Hanifin.
Francis, however, never made a player-for-player trade. He failed to adequately address the Hurricanes’ need for scoring punch, especially at center. Last summer’s acquisitions of goaltender Scott Darling and checking forwards Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris did nothing to improve the club’s fortunes.
The Hurricanes aren’t wasting time finding a replacement for Francis.
Hearing that Carolina had preliminary phone call with Mike Futa (LA) Friday; also believe Hurricanes have reached out to former Canucks AGM Laurence Gilman. Belief is Carolina has reached out to Nashville regarding Paul Fenton and Tampa regarding Julien Brisebois, obvious names..
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) March 10, 2018
Whoever they hire will be expected to make some bold moves starting this summer. Dundon will likely want significant, immediate results for next season.
Determining the fate of head coach Bill Peters could be the first decision. While Peters avoided the ax this time, the new GM could prefer hiring his own coaching staff. Dundon probably won’t stand in his way.
Turning to the Hurricanes roster, Cap Friendly indicates they have over $48.4-million invested in 12 players for 2018-19. Restricted free agents include Hanifin, forward Elias Lindholm and blueliner Trevor van Riemsdyk, while long-time Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward and winger Lee Stempniak are the noteworthy unrestricted free agents.
The Hurricanes won’t have to break the bank re-signing their key free agents. Hanifin, 21, is blossoming into a solid top-four defenseman and could be in line for a significant raise. As he’s coming off an entry-level deal, the new GM could try re-signing him to a short-term bridge deal. He could also follow Francis’ lead and re-sign the youngster to a lengthy affordable long-term contract similar to those of blueliners Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.
Francis was reluctant to draw upon his blueline depth to bolster his offense, but his successor could be willing to go down that path. Hanifin, Slavin or Pesce could be dangled for an established young scorer.
The Montreal Canadiens need defensive depth and forwards Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk were fixtures in this season’s trade-rumor mill. Perhaps the Toronto Maple Leafs might part with William Nylander or Mitch Marner for someone such as Hanifin.
Another option could be free agency. If Dundon is willing to spend toward what could be an $80-million salary-cap ceiling, the Hurricanes will have plenty of dollars to bid competitively for the best UFA talent. Among their targets could be the New York Islanders’ John Tavares, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, San Jose’s Evander Kane, Boston’s Rick Nash, Vegas’ James Neal or David Perron and Winnipeg’s Paul Stastny.
Having the ability to pay big bucks for the top free agents, however, doesn’t mean the Hurricanes will land any of them. It’ll take a considerable sell job to sway those veterans into joining a team struggling to emerge from nearly a decade of mediocrity.
Goaltending will also be an issue for Francis’ successor. With Darling signed through 2020-21 at an annual salary-cap hit of $4.125-million and carrying a modified no-trade clause, shipping him out this summer could prove difficult. He’ll probably be retained for at least another season and given an opportunity to rebound from this season’s miserable effort. The 34-year-old Ward is well past his best-before date. He’ll likely be allowed to depart as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
This year’s free-agent goalie market, however, isn’t very deep, stocked with aging netminders past their prime (Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Ondrej Pavelec), veteran backups (Jonathan Bernier, Michael Hutchinson) and the once-promising Petr Mrazek. The trade market isn’t much better, with perhaps Buffalo’s Robin Lehner as the best of the bunch.
Dundon and new general manager must avoid the temptation to chase quick fixes via trades or free agency. Whatever moves they make must work for both the short and long term. They can’t fall into the trap of acquiring expensive veterans who become costly long-term busts, eating up valuable cap space and setting back their rebuilding efforts.